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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
March Madness is everyone's favorite time of the year. Fans grew up watching conference tournaments on national television and seeing their favorite teams win championships before possibly seeing them win yet another championship.
Many of these tournaments take place directly before the NCAA selection show, but if you look back a week, you'll find many more compelling postseason contests. Among the leagues that hand out hardware in the first week of March, the Big South Conference can be found. As great as the basketball action is -- and the tournament has been loaded with tight finishes and buzzer-beaters over the last three years -- the nearby South Carolina beaches contribute to an all-around travel experience that is worthwhile for any sports fan who loves to partake in pilgrimages.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There are concession stands located just outside each of the four arena entrances, meaning that you can quickly grab a bite without having to miss too much of the action -- in most cases (more about this in the Access section). Most of the stands offer the same fare, including hot dogs ($3), nachos ($3), popcorn ($3) and soft pretzels ($3) as the main entree-style options. Though a grill was set up outside to serve burgers on one of the days of the tournament, this was not part of the normal concession offerings. A hamburger or cheeseburger option would be a welcome addition, however.
Snacks and candy are also available at each stand, with chips ($1.50), king-size candy ($2) and cookies ($2) helping to tame the munchies until you can get to something more substantial.
Water and sodas (Pepsi products) can also be purchased at any stand. Bottled water is $2.50, with "regular" fountain sodas at $3 and souvenir Coastal Carolina souvenir cups for $4.
There is also a Pie By Night stand along the main walkway, helping to really boost the food offerings. Pizza is -- as one might expect -- the main offering at Pie By Night, with meat lovers ($7.99), chicken bacon chipotle ($7.69), buffalo chicken ($7.49), veggie ($6.99), pepperoni lovers ($7.99), barbecue chicken ($7.49) and cheese ($5.29) providing your cheese, toppings and crust fix. Chicken wings (buffalo, barbecue and garlic parmesan) are $8.99 for an order of ten, with breadsticks ($3.29 for regular and $4.99 for cheese-covered) closing out the offerings one might expect to see from a pizza restaurant. Chicken tenders can also be purchased, with three for $4.39 and six for $6.89. Finally, if you need a sandwich, they have that covered, too. Chicken parmesan ($6.49), veggie ($5.69 and Italian ($5.89) sandwiches fill out the menu.
Rita's Italian Ice also sets up a stand on the main concourse to satisfy your sweet tooth. Ten flavors are available for your enjoyment, with small ($3), regular ($4) and large ($5) sizes ready for purchase. Frozen lemonade ($6) is also available, with other sweets ready for you to devour.
Inexplicably, the arena offers no hot beverages. The air conditioning is cranked to 11 on the first couple of days of the tournament, so be sure to dress warm. There will not be any coffee or hot chocolate to warm your blood.
The trend in building new arenas seems to be that bigger is better, but the HTC Center defies that logic. The arena has more of a classic gym feeling, and this allows for nice proximity to the floor from any seat in the house. The seats are approached from the floor, instead of an upper concourse. There are horizontal railings that may present some visual challenges in the corners of the general admission area, so be mindful of this when choosing your seats. Also, if your seats are in the general admission area, be sure to bring a cushion or stadium seat. The bleacher seating can wear on your back and legs after a while. This is also the case with the middle-tier seating, though there is at least chairback-style planking atop the bleachers.
There is a four-sided, center-hung scoreboard, allowing fans to clearly see the score and time remaining from any spot in the arena. Video boards above both baskets display the game action as it takes place, along with occasional game highlights. The board occasionally displays in-game statistics, which is a nice touch. It would be an added benefit to show this during each break in the action.
The schools taking part in the weekend action brought their bands, cheerleaders and, in some cases, their dance teams. This helped to provide a little more of a home-court feel for those schools that were miles -- or, in some cases, states -- away from their campuses. The bands and students who made the trip were a great boost to the atmosphere, providing chants, cheers and support for their teams. The mascots also became part of the action, as you can see below:
The university's location in Conway, a town of just greater than 16,000 residents, means that there is not a great amount to do near the campus. There is a small shopping area across US Highway 501 from the front entrance to the campus that features a Rotelli. Rotelli offers pizza, pasta, salad and other Italian favorites. A local sports bar, Cleat Chasers, is just down US 501 from the university, and seems to be a favorite of the locals. Carolinas favorite Cook Out also has a brand new location just minutes from the arena. There are further fast service options (Jimmy John's, Little Caesars, Sonic and the like) along South Carolina Highway 544, which runs behind the university and arena.
Unless you really want to stay near the university in any of a number of chain hotels, make the 15-20 minute drive (depending on traffic and location) to Myrtle Beach. This beautiful piece of Carolina coastline offers shopping, bars, clubs, family attractions and, most importantly, miles of oceanfront views. The beach makes for a gorgeous getaway after spending hours watching great Big South basketball. If you need more information on the area, look no further than the sponsors of the tournament, VisitMyrtleBeach.com.
Though the non-neutral site was the topic of discussion throughout the entire week of the tournament, the Coastal Carolina fans made their presence known throughout the tournament. Attendance struggled a bit on the first day of the tournament with the top five teams receiving a bye, but the later sessions made up for any early deficits. Fans from around the conference descended on the Grand Strand for a chance to enjoy a vacation and watch their teams play.
The fact that the host Chanticleers faced off with Palmetto State rival Winthrop for the second straight year was also good for "business." Coastal students and fans piled into the HTC Center, with much of the other side of the gym occupied by the garnet-and-gold wearing Eagle fans who made the three-hour trek southeast from Rock Hill.
Coastal won their second straight Big South title in 2015, allowing some of those boisterous fans to again come celebrate with the Chanticleers.
The parking situation, though not perfect, is made considerably easier by Coastal Carolina staff. There is a large lot at the front entrance to the campus, which is clearly marked by signage. Fans can park -- for free, which is nice -- in this lot and catch a five-minute shuttle ride to the arena. The shuttles frequently run, meaning your wait to return to your car or the arena will not be long at any point of the day. The lot is technically walkable from the arena, but it is strongly recommended to utilize the shuttle. The walk may take up to a half hour -- admittedly, through a pretty attractive campus.
Conway is served by the Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR). There are a number of airlines with multiple daily arrivals and departures from most southeastern markets. Public transportation to and from the airport is not totally feasible, so it is recommended to plan for a rental car. The car will be a big help as you explore the Grand Strand during any times when your favorite team is not playing. If you don't mind a bit longer drive, Charleston (CHS) and Wilmington (ILM) airports are also options. The arena is located near the intersection of US Highway 501 and South Carolina Highway 544 in Conway.
Once inside the arena, the concourse and lobby area is quite wide, allowing for plenty of room to move. Restrooms are plentiful and located along each hallway. The facilities are clean, ample and well kept.
The main drawback of the arena's layout becomes evident during halftime and session breaks, though. The concession areas' proximity to the main building entrance and walkways makes for incredibly long lines, particularly during the aforementioned breaks. The lines move reasonably quickly, but walking through the halls can turn into an absolute obstacle course. Some additional queue control would be a great idea.
Additionally, be careful when planning to eat between sessions. Several fans ordered from the pizza restaurant between one of the sessions, only to be ushered away when going to sit down at the tables in front of the pizza restaurant. The fans then moved, only to be told they could come back in a couple of minutes later. The main arena concourse should stay open, even when the sessions are turning over. This is another opportunity for better queue control.
When it comes to postseason basketball, it is really tough to beat the value of the Big South tournament. Tickets are available for each session (two games in the afternoon for the first round and one in the evening, then two games each in the quarterfinals and semis and one game for the championship game) for no greater than $20, so you can certainly choose this route to attend games.
The true value, though, is buying the tournament book. The tournament books are sold in three price levels: End Zone, Bronze and Teal. The End Zone books sell for $60, and are strictly bleacher seats. They are also general admission seats, so the possibility of sitting just feet from the action on the floor exists. Arrive early and get the best seats. The Bronze level is $75, and these seats are essentially still bleachers with a bit of back support. These seats are also assigned. Finally, the Teal level is $90, and these seats are chairbacks on the side with the team benches. This would be a great value for just the men's tournament, but the books also grant you access to the women's tournament. This means you get over 20 games for $90 (at most), which is an incredible return on your entertainment dollars.
When combining your session or tournament tickets with the concession prices, it is easy to see that your dollar goes a long way.
The conference sets up a souvenir stand in the lobby between gates 1 and 2. A number of shirts and other gear can be purchased at these stands, allowing fans to commemorate their trip to the conference tournament. The selection of shirts may or may not be equally robust throughout the tournament; however, this year's tournament offered a 25 percent off sale on souvenir items as the weekend progressed. Shirts could be purchased in the Chanticleer Store, as well (more on the store below).
There is a Fan Fest set up for everyone's enjoyment along that same lobby area. The activities include miniature golf, "pop-a-shot" basketball, sign design stations and much more. Photos are found for sale nearby, and local establishments (Tanger Outlets, for instance) set up shop to ply their wares. This allows for friendly competition among fans of member schools.
Want to find out more information about your favorite school or the conference? Fear not. The conference offers magazine-style programs for the best price of all: free. The programs can be found at any number of places along the concourse, or you can get one from a number of smiling staff members in the arena.
The other thing you will see at the Big South tournament that you won't see at any other is the Interlude Dance. This video (see below for a performance by the Big South mascots) is a favorite of fans and cheerleaders alike. If you develop a headache from doing the dance, you can step out to the lobby and visit the Chanticleer Store, where you can get Coastal Carolina gear, bottled sodas and the much-needed headache medicine.
Okay, so maybe you won't see the same thing you would see at the ACC Tournament, and you might not see yourself on national television until the championship game. If you want to see SportsCenter Top 10 plays, record performances and much of the same on-court greatness you will see at those other tournaments, make a trip to the Big South tournament. The surroundings and the drama are enough to keep you happy, but it also helps to know that those on the court and putting together the festivities truly appreciate those in attendance.
Member Review by brian on Mar 19, 2014
There is really no better time of year than March Madness, and you don't need to look to a 40,000-seat arena or the bright lights of national television to find that excitement. Add in the nearby South Carolina coast, and it's really tough to beat the Big South Championships.
The 2014 edition of the tournament was no exception. Between buzzer-beaters, record-setting performances, goodbyes to players and teams and a champion celebrating on their home court after a 20-plus year drought, this tournament had it all. If you're looking for great performances, greater people and a beautiful coastal environment, the Big South Championships are a great way to get yourself ready for the excitement of March.
201 Graduate Rd #109
Conway, SC 29526
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